The Secret Club

By Bernadette Bernon
January 24, 2000
Newport, RI

Let's call him "Alan." He's the first one to approach me in the aisles at the Sail Expo boat show in Atlantic City this past weekend. He says he just read my editorial in the January issue of Cruising World, in which I announced I was leaving my job at the magazine to go cruising.

"I'm going, too," he whispers. "My wife and I are leaving in 18 months. We just can't tell anyone at work yet. I haven't had the guts to tell my parents. We've gotta be careful, y'know? Until we're sure."

I do know. It was a challenge to keep this thing secret. We'd only made the decision to go cruising a year ago — after a health scare involving my pacemaker, two surgeries, and a stress-filled year at work caused us to re-evaluate our lives. A doctor repeating 20 times "You're lucky to be alive" has an effect on a person — at least it did on me. My usual early-bird drive to get the worm began to diminish somewhat.

Douglas and I slashed our five-year plan to one year and began looking for the right boat. Until we found it, we didn't know if we could make a summer 2000 departure. After a six-month search, we finally bought a great boat in September — not a minute too soon, considering we faced a winter haul-out in November. After filling a notebook with the list of things we needed to do, we began to believe we just might pull it all off.

"So, how's your dad taking it?" asks Alan.

"He's nervous," I say. "He's not a sailor. He dwells on the risks, and that I won't be around all the time, like I am now. We're pretty close."

This is a major issue for me, but Douglas and I have talked about it a lot, and he supports my coming home on a regular basis. You're lucky to be alive. "We'll have to see what happens and just try to roll with it," I say.

"We will, too," says Alan. We hug and wish each other well.

The next day at the show, "Bob" sees my name tag, rushes up, and pumps my hand. "Awright!" he says. "You're out of the closet!" Then he lowers his voice. "We're going, too. But I don't want everyone I work with to panic until I'm sure, so I've got to keep a lid on it for a while."

Photo of Bernadette Bernon and her Dad My dad and I like to see each other often. Going cruising will change that, but I plan to visit home on a regular basis.

I know what he means. The day in December that I announced to the staff at Cruising World that I'd be leaving in May (the same day Douglas began to tell his patients he'd be closing his psychoanalytic practice in the spring) was momentous for both of us. After 20 years at the same company, nine as Editor in Chief, it was hard to imagine that my identity would no longer be based on my professional position. Indeed, in the weeks since my announcement, I'm finding that my relationship with my edit and art staff is slightly different-friendlier, perhaps, and somewhat less authoritative than it was before. I quite like this in one way. But I'm also finding that the power already is beginning to shift a bit under my feet-not an entirely pleasant experience, but one for which I've tried to prepare myself. Bob is right to be careful. He, too, will need to time his announcement so it's not so soon that he's rendered completely ineffective at work, not so late that it inconveniences a company that's been good to him, as mine has been to me.

The next day at Sail Expo, "John" walks up. "Hey, Bernadette!" he says when he sees my name tag. "I just read about you in Cruising World. You're doing it! Cool!" He looks around to see if anyone is listening, then lowers his voice: "We're here looking for the right boat ourselves. We have a two-year plan, and we haven't even told our kids. What are you guys doing with your house?"

We decided to sell it, I tell him. Indeed, one of the biggest reality checks of this going-cruising experience happened the day last month when I came home from work and saw that the For Sale sign had gone up on the house we'd designed and built, that we'd lived in for seven Christmases, seven displays of spring perennials, seven rich and busy years containing all the ups and downs of our lives. "Oh. My. God," I gasped, staring at the sign. From that moment on, everyone in this small town seemed to know our business. Usually a private person, I did the only thing I could do: I just tried to smile and answer the barrage of personal questions that began flying at us from all corners. You're lucky to be alive.

On the last day of Expo, a woman sees my name tag and throws her arms around me. "I'm so happy for you!" she says. "Thanks," I stutter. "I'm sorry, do we know each other?"

"Oh, no, no," she says, and introduces herself as Kathy. "I just read your announcement in the magazine. I think what you guys are doing is so great. Listen, I can't tell anyone else this yet, but my husband and I are going, too. In a year. Sometimes, though, I've gotta admit to you, I'm scared that we don't know enough. . . ."

I know exactly what she means. I tell her I live in fear of becoming the subject of a Ralph Naranjo sidebar. Ralph, Cruising World's able technical editor, is always enlisted to write those unsympathetic lessons-learned sidebars that accompany CW articles about huge mishaps at sea. "Those people never should have been out there," he's usually known to write. "They didn't know their boat well enough... They didn't have enough blue-water experience." Risking the inevitable frown from my friend Ralph about the velocity at which our plans are now moving, I assure Kathy that we're forging onward anyway and that she should, too. You're lucky to be alive.

This is how it's been going. Around almost every corner are people who inspire us. Around the others are emotional minefields. Here's one: Our dog, Gracie, is overactive and big, and she becomes a maniac on the boat. As much as we adore her, we've reluctantly decided not to take her. For a month now, a pall has hung over our plans. Then, today, relief. Our friend Mary said she'd love to take Gracie while we're away. Here's another: My brother and sister-in-law are expecting a baby in March. Initially I was thrilled, then selfishly alarmed at the prospect of missing the first years of my first niece or nephew's life, then — You're lucky to be alive — hell, I'm thrilled again.

Every boat project we complete. Every routine mammogram. For heaven's sake, even every dentist appointment over the past year has been a small milestone that, once checked off our list, has given Douglas and me a small burst of confidence as we hurtle toward our departure date. Alan, Bob, John, Kathy, when things get crazy in the exit lounge, just remember: You're lucky to be alive. Meanwhile, this train is leaving the station.

This article was first published as an editorial in the February, 2000 issue of Cruising World Magazine.